No. 12: September-December 2014

Nythamar de Oliveira

Neuroethics in South America

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present status of neuroethics in South America?

Just as it happens in other areas of cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research in Latin America, most research in neuroethics in this part of the world has been conducted in cooperation with U.S. and European institutions through joint research programs, exchange initiatives, and international events that receive support or intellectual inspiration from major universities and programs in the Northern Hemisphere. The only exception is perhaps Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM, Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina) [1], which regularly sends trained staff (medical doctors and public health professionals) and expertise (including pharmaceutical and neurotechnological innovations, esp. from Havana-based Drug Research and Development Center, CIDEM, and Food and Pharmacy Institute at the University of Havana) to developing countries in Latin America, Africa and all over the world. In all the other countries of Latin America, pharmaceutical and neurotechnological research relating to neuroethics is still very dependent on U.S. and Europe, just like analogous developments in bioethics and medical ethics overall. Although there are some incipient research programs in Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay, the major representatives of ongoing research in neuroethics in South America are to be found in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. If one extends this report to Latin America, Mexico’s Autonomous University (UNAM) comes to mind as another country to be included, as it has also neuroethics and neurophilosophical research centers. If we keep in mind that neuroethics, as the field of philosophy that discusses the rights and wrongs of the treatment or enhancement of the human brain, is a very recent area of expertise that came to the fore in 2002 [2], the fast growth of interest and research programs in this field in South America remains indeed impressive.

Dr. José María Mainetti, more known as the Argentine oncologist who introduced bioethics in South America, paved also the way for neuroethical research in Argentina, especially at the National University of La Plata and the Centro de Investigaciones Filosóficas (CIF), directed by Dr. Arleen Salles, at the University of Buenos Aires, which remains by all criteria the most important research center of neuroethics in South America. [3] In Chile, there has been a close cooperation with Spanish institutions, esp. with the University of Valencia (Adela Cortina’s research group in neuroethics, bioethics, and applied ethics), as in Santiago-based Univesity of Chile and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. In Brazil there are several research groups in neuroethics, of which the most important are the ones in Porto Alegre (at the Brain Institute), Rio de Janeiro (Pontifical Catholic University and D’Or Institute), Sao Paulo (Albert Einstein Hospital) and Natal (at the local Federal University). In Brazil, Jorge Moll (D’Or Institute), Cinara Nahra (UFRN), Noel Struchiner (PUC-Rio), Lincoln Frias (Unifal), Alcino Bonella (UFU), Jaderson da Costa (InsCer, PUCRS), and Alfredo Pereira Jr (Unesp) stand out as the most important researchers in neuroethics. Several South American researchers maintain liaisons with some of the most respected scientific societies in this area, such as the US-based International Neuroethics Society (established in 2006) [4] and European research programs, such as NERRI (Neuro-Enhancement Responsible Research and Innovation) [5], which includes researchers from major British, German, French, and other European centers.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

With the evolution of neuroscience and neuroethics, models of human social cognition that are grounded in a new range of neuroimaging data also emerged. Given the fast-growing interest in neurotechnologies and neuroscientific research in South America, especially in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, neuroethics will certainly become one of the most important areas of interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research in the next 5 years. The tremendous potential for human empowerment and social impact brought about by neuroethics attests such an optimistic prognosis, without invoking any utopian ideal of trans-human or post-human scenarios. In effect, the conjugation of the “social brain” with neuro-enhancement tends to be rather regarded as part of strategic investments and improvements in public health, so as to make biotechnologies more accessible to larger segments of society. Most brain research centers are thus somewhat committed to this social dimension of public health, as life expectancy and the population of aged people continue to grow in most South American countries and the neuroscientific study of the aging brain, especially the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and aging-related dementias, seek to investigate how sensory, motor, sleep, cognitive, and emotional functioning ultimately influence the quality of life of older individuals. Neuroenhancement –even when primarily conceived in terms of cognitive and social-behavioral enhancement for healthy individuals without mental illness—tends to be more and more broadly conceived with a view to improving the processes of aging and minimizing age-related cognitive decline. It is indeed a salient feature of ongoing research in cognitive neuroscience and neuroethics to stress the “social brain” intertwining of emotion, memory, consciousness, and rational decision-making processes in both individual and collective existence. In Brazil, we find two good examples of this kind of interdisciplinary research programs in neuroethics.

The “Event-Feature-Emotion” complex or EFEC developed by Moll et alii suggests that moral, cognitive phenomena emerge from the interplay between three main components associated with the recruitment of specific brain centers: knowledge of structured events (contextual representations in prefrontal regions), social traits and functional features (stored in the temporal cortex, such as perceptual memories), and central, basic emotional states, such as aggressiveness, sexual arousal, attachment, and sadness (represented in limbic and paralimbic structures). Models such as EFEC can generate hypotheses about the neural bases associated with different moral dilemmas from what might be the motivation and cognitive processes that underlie the decisions made. These hypotheses can be tested from the association of specific situations and dilemmas with specific networks whose functions (say, providing the basis for central emotional states) are well established.

The social implications of this neuropsychological complex have been explored in neuroethics, neurolaw, bioethics, and applied ethics overall: “Moral cognitive neuroscience researchers have developed innovative paradigms for the scientific exploration of unique forms of human social behaviour.” [6] Thus an interdisciplinary research project on “Social Media and Decision Making: Reason and Emotion in Social Relations”[7] has been implemented at the Brain Institute in Porto Alegre, Brazil, revisiting the so-called problem of the social brain from an intercultural, multidisciplinary perspective, including experiments in partnership with counterparts in Norway and the U.S. According to social epistemology, the emphasis on the primacy of emotions and the importance of common notions are not always equally crucial to characterize the formation of knowledge, agreement and disagreement between epistemic peers, and decision-making in social groups. In effect, the social dimension that is often emphasized in discussions about the social intellect, culminating with the notion of a Machiavellian intelligence and its presence in the world of primates, is the individual’s ability to interact successfully with social groups in order to predict and manipulate the behavior, the making and breaking of promises, and so on. The energy requirements of such a complex situation are deemed responsible for the large size of the primate brain, so that some evolutionary anthropologists, biologists, and colleagues in related fields postulated the hypothesis of a Machiavellian intelligence and the social brain hypothesis. And yet, the concept of social brain is not reducible to the individual manifestations of a social world around someone simply because the brain’s architecture rather reflects forms of social organization, language, and culture.

On the other hand, one must actually avoid speaking of “social brain” to evoke the positivist idea that social behavior can be solely explained by brain functioning, as if the brain were the biological substrate that determines sociability and human psychology, without taking into account reflexivity and social, cultural conditionings. The neurobiological and sociocultural evolutionary variables do seem to interact both ways, rendering the task of reconstructing the social brain even more complex and challenging. It is against suh a complex semantic context that processes of moral decision-making that materialize in everyday life (instantiated in day-to-day, off-line activities and social interactions) and social media (which instantiate online, particularly in Facebook and social networks) can be measured in neuroimaging experiments. These processes are thus investigated from the standpoint of the neural basis of decision-making, combining both empirical findings and theoretical assumptions, as one of the most intriguing tasks of neuroethics lies on the very level of its normative grounds, namely, whatever accounts for the moral justification of doing the right thing in given circumstances that can be described with the aid of neurotechnologies. The descriptive and experimental dimensions of most experiments fail to provide for such a moral justification, insofar as causality or causation cannot be taken for granted or satisfy ought-like normative claims –not every correlation turns out to be causal. Neuroethics deals precisely with this intersection of possible, imaginable uses of neurotechnologies and their moral acceptability, desirability, and permissibility: when is it permissible to alter a person's psychological conditions, dispositions, memories, to the point of influencing her personality traits or “reading” her mind? What can neuroscience tell us about free will, self-control, self-deception, conditioning mechanisms and the very justification of moral paths to be adopted by one individual or social groups? What neuroenhancement and neurotechnological interventions are morally acceptable and appropriate to be adopted in public health policies and legislation? [8]

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

Another feature that remains salient in South American research in neuroethics is that many active groups, centers and researchers are linked to confessional institutions, notably Catholic universities, and this is very important as we consider the impact of neuroscience on worldwide reception of new technologies, particularly those that seem to defy traditional conceptions of human nature. It is thus very interesting to take into account the conjugated processes of democratization and secularization which shaped most South American societies, constitutions, and legislations after the several decades of military dictatorship that haunted almost all parts of the subcontinent, following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Although most South American societies can be regarded as postsecular, constitutional democracies, one can observe varying degrees of liberal pluralism and remarkable contrasts between religious institutions that are clearly more secularized and those which remain more conservative and resistant to biotechnological and neurotechnological innovations, including the spousal of neuroethics.

To be sure, what is properly fearful and innovative in brain design enhancement is the ability to change something inherent in “human nature,” especially its genetic configuration and the implications of such changes. One might think of good examples in the neuropharmacological research and drug industry –both for enhancement and therapeutic purposes— as neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and hormones, such as oxytocin, have been manipulated with the aim of reducing anxiety or stimulating empathy and social engagement. That would be quite different from using neurotechnologies and nanotechnology to change or manipulate the human genome itself, while seeking some cognitive and life-quality enhancement, in case it entailed some form of liberal eugenics or social Darwinism. Mutations and genetic manipulation itself would not per se be morally questionable, but the way they could be managed and implemented, in that they could compromise fundamental bioethical principles such as individual freedom, social justice, non-maleficence, and beneficence arising from particular cases.

What one learns from neuroethical theories and conjectures, in the last analysis, is that moral dilemmas are not solved once and for all by simply resorting to neurotechnologies or to neural correlations supposedly establishing causal relationships, as if all desirable effects could be obtained by the appropriate changes in the causes without damage or risks –to the patients themselves or to third parties. Indeed, one of the first contributions of neuroscience to social cognition is how the decision to take action in relation to a moral dilemma (say, in the classic dilemma of the runaway railway trolley) is associated with additional recruitment, as cortical, neural networks are associated with the need to exert cognitive control at a given moment, making impossible to reduce a decision to an automatic or procedural process. As studies in humans and other primates have revealed, different neural structures play a decisive role in the construction of social behavior and the so-called social brain: the amygdala, the ventromedial frontal cortices, and the right somatosensory cortex, among other structures, which seem to mediate perceptual representations of socially relevant stimuli, being reflexively sedimented in social, cultural codifications. In effect, the restrictions on the size of the social group arise from the ability of information processing in the brain, especially among primates, so that the neocortex eventually plays an important role in social evolution that leads us to our present complex sociality. Thus, in order to fare well between Scylla and Charybdis, long-term perspectives for the ongoing, promising research in neuroethics in South America must systematically avoid these two major extremes: necessitarian thought control and lack of scientific rigor in their research programs.

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[1] <>

[2] Roskies, A. “Neuroethics for the new millennium.” Neuron 3/35 (2002): 21–3.


[3] <>

[4] <>

[5] <>

[6] Moll, J., de Oliveira-Souza, R., Krueger, F., Grafman, J. “The neural basis of human moral cognition.” Nature Reviews 6 (2005): 799-809. <>

[7] MCTI/CNPq N º 405998/2012-0, MEC/CAPES N º 18/2012, Researchers: C. Borges, A. Buchweitz, J. da Costa, N. de Oliveira, A. Franco, F. Karasek, N. Madarasz, C. Nahra, F. Pontin, M. Portuguez; <>

[8] De Oliveira, N. “Recasting the naturalism-normativity debate: Neuroscience, Neurophilosophy, Neuroethics.” Principios 20/33 (2013):79-103.


Nythamar de Oliveira was born in Rio de Janeiro and teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUCRS) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he coordinates a Research Group in Neurophilosophy at the Brain Institute. He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the State University of New York (1994) and was a Visiting Scholar at the New School for Social Research and a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Kassel and the London School of Economics.

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